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Mayor Watson elaborates on the proposed $75 million bond election

Wednesday, January 26, 2000 by

Capital Metro undecided whether to pair road and light-rail election

Karen Rae, general manager of the Capital Metropolitan Transportation Authority, said Tuesday that she and Mayor Kirk Watson discussed the idea of putting highway bond funds and a light rail question on the same ballot only in a "brief conversation" Sunday morning, the day the story broke in the Austin American-Statesman regarding a proposed $75 million bond election. Rae said she is interested in exploring the idea, but she and members of the Cap Metro board need a lot more information before making such a decision (In Fact Daily Jan. 24).

Rae said she hopes she can have some of those conversations with the mayor when they, along with Cap Metro Board Chairman Lee Walker and Council Member Daryl Slusher journey to Washington, D.C. to meet with federal officials regarding light-rail funding. The meetings are still scheduled to take place this Friday, Rae said, and she is hoping the current snowy weather in the nation's capitol will not delay the trip.

Also Tuesday, Pete Winstead, chair of the Texas Turnpike Authority, said he had discussed the idea of a joint election with Rae and Walker "a long time ago." Rae said the matter was discussed "conceptually–absolutely. But not with this level of specificity."

Watson said "the proposal is out there a little quicker than" he had planned. However, he said the $75 million road, bike and pedestrian improvement plan is "a good sound proposal to create some of the tools we need" to get funding from the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT).

Winstead, who has acknowledged being the originator of the proposal to join the two plans on one ballot, said, "I do not want to steal the mayor's thunder." Winstead said he had originally proposed $50 million to fund road projects.

Winstead said Tuesday he could not guess whether Cap Metro could win an election without the enticement of highway dollars. He said it would depend on turnout, as do all Austin elections. "I think Cap Metro needs to explain a lot to the neighborhoods," he said.

Watson says he raised the figure to $75 million because, "I was seeking to achieve a broader package of tools for transportation items, including sidewalks and bike lanes." He said CAMPO ( Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization) usually figures 15 percent of its budget for pedestrian and bicycle improvements. That would give the city $11.25 million for those items and about $64 million for roads, he said.

The mayor explained that the money could not be designated for particular roads now because the city will not know what projects need funding in the future. He said any bonds for new road construction under the proposal would not be sold until at least 2005. He said projects CAMPO identifies as necessary do not become part of the TxDOT's budget for five to six years. However, he said the city needs "to have money set aside that can be used to leverage state highway dollars." Watson went on to say that there may be some years in which the city would not want to sell bonds, for example, "if the economy wasn't good."

Planning Commission recommends more money to add CSC retail space

Extra $971,000 would help make 2nd Street a major retail corridor

The Planning Commission voted last night to recommend that City Council approve a budget amendment for $9,325,000 for development of retail space on the ground floor of two downtown office buildings being constructed by Computer Sciences Corp. (CSC). The vote was 7-1, with Commissioner Susana Almanza voting no. Commissioner Robin Cravey did not arrive until after the item had been considered.

Assistant City Manager Toby Futrell made the presentation to the commission. She said $5.8 million of the total would be for a retail shell, with $174,000 as contingency funding for the shell. Another $2,380,000 will pay CSC for rent for the retail space. Futrell said reconfiguration of the retail space is projected to cost $971,000. Council is scheduled to take up the additional budget items on Thursday, she said. The additional money will be needed to flesh out retail space along 2nd Street, the first link in a major retail corridor on 2nd Street from Congress Avenue to the Green Water Treatment Plant. The city is coordinating the plan with Amli-Bonner Carrington for the two blocks of apartments opposite the CSC buildings on 2nd Street, and working with Federal Realty Investment Trust on the larger vision for successful urban, street-level retail. Futrell's goal is to get Federal to buy out the city's retail leases and take the city's risk.

Last week the Downtown Commission refused to recommend and the Planning Commission refused to approve the city staff's request for a waiver of that part of the Land Development Code requiring that parking garages be separated from adjacent streets by pedestrian-oriented uses at ground level (In Fact Daily Jan. 19).

Futrell told commissioners last night that staff would not be taking the request for a waiver to city council. She also apologized to the commission for last week's presentation made by architect Nathan Schneider, the city's project manager for CSC and City Hall construction. "Our item last week was confusing," Futrell said. She explained staff's position by saying, "We're negotiating every possible contingency you could have in 99 years. CSC…asked us to bring the variance as insurance," in case the retail was not profitable some years down the road. Futrell said, "We're moving forward in the contract negotiations," without the waiver.

Almanza said she could not support the budget change because she feared it would take away from the focus of pedestrian-oriented uses on Cesar Chavez. Commissioner Betty Baker said it would be difficult to have many pedestrians on that street because "access to it would be hazardous to your health. The speed of traffic on Cesar Chavez is not pedestrian-friendly," she said. Commissioner Jean Mather, who also sits on the Downtown Commission, said retail across the street from the Four Seasons Hotel on Cesar Chavez, just east of Congress Avenue, did not work because of traffic. Futrell said she envisions restaurants with lakefront views as part of the new scene on Cesar Chavez. But a really successful urban retail street means people jaywalking, she said, adding that such activities would drive Police Chief Stan Knee crazy.

Commissioner Gwen Webb said she liked the retail option and would support it. However, she said she thought too much effort was going into CSC and not enough into other important city concerns, such as affordable housing. "I'd like to see more balance between the things we want and the things people need," she said. This project, she said, "is moving very fast."

Futrell said she understood Webb's concerns. "We are talking to two other major employers right now who want to locate in the Desired Development Zone," and those employers are interested in eastside locations, she said.

Following the meeting, Futrell told In Fact Daily that major employers like CSC often start looking at new locations years before anyone knows about it. Usually, she said, such companies hire a broker to assist them, so even the city does not know exactly who it is dealing with until the process has moved along to a decision stage. "By the time you can say who it is and where it is, it's moving" at a rate that seems fast to the public. "For a lot of people," she said, "it's scary." Futrell said she wished she knew of a way to let the public know about such projects sooner, but working with private companies makes that a difficult proposition.

Funny bone fund-raiser…Columnist and author Molly Ivins and Texas House Speaker Pro Tem Tom Uher will host a fund-raiser Thursday at Threadgill's, 301 W. Riverside, for Campaigns for People. The nonprofit organization, founded by Austin attorney Fred Lewis, will work to educate people about "serious flaws in Texas' campaign system." The group will work for complete disclosure laws, prohibitions of contributions from people with government business, promotion of innovative solutions, tough enforcement of campaign laws, responsible contribution limits, and citizen education and participation. The event is slated to run from 5 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. For more information, call 472-1007.

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